Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

John Forbes’ ‘Love Poem’: War As Entertaining, Compensatory, Lullaby

Reading Kath Kenny‘s wonderful essay on the Australian poet John Forbes–a personal and literary take on his life and work–reminded me that because I was introduced to Forbes’ poetry by his close friends, I came to feel, despite never having met him in person, that I had acquired some measure of personal contact with him. Her essay reminded me too, of a Forbes poem that is my personal favorite:

Spent tracer flecks Baghdad’s
bright video game sky

as I curl up with the war
in lieu of you, whose letter

lets me know my poems show
how unhappy I can be. Perhaps.

But what they don’t show, until
now, is how at ease I can be

with military technology: e.g.
matching their feu d’esprit I classify

the sounds of the Iraqi AA—the
thump of the 85 mil, the throaty

chatter of the quad ZSU 23.
Our precision guided weapons

make the horizon flash & glow
but nothing I can do makes you

want me. Instead I watch the west
do what the west does best

& know, obscurely, as I go to bed
all this is being staged for me.

I am not comfortable offering literary criticism of poetry so I can only point, dimly, in the direction of what it is that makes this poem such a pleasure to read for me.

Forbes skillfully invokes an iconic image of the early nineties–that of the aerial bombardment of Baghdad which kicked off the First Gulf War, and set the stage for the second–to remind us that we were spectators and consumers of that war; we watched its images as entertainment, divorced from the brute reality of what the tangible realizations of those armaments on the ground were; we were given a ‘video game’ and we remained content with it. The lovelorn narrator of this poem has come to find in this spectacle consolations not available elsewhere in more amorous pastures; in this regard, he differs only mildly from all those who find in the fantasies of war a compensatory substitution for the failures, absences, and losses of daily life. Forbes’ invoking of the sounds of war is especially clever–especially the double ‘th’ sound in the sixth stanza. War’s images are beautiful and evocative; so are its sounds–think of the awe-inspiring aural and auditory spectacle the lighting of a jet’s afterburner provides, for instance. These sights and sounds beguile us; they take us away from the aching gaps in our lives. We grew up  on a diet of war comics and war heroes; now, as adults, the play continues. Elsewhere, its realities still hidden from us. We amuse ourselves by memorizing, in awed tones of voice, the impressive technical specifications of the gleaming armaments that do so much damage to flesh and bone, to life and limb, to hope and aspiration; we look forward to these toys being used for more than just play.

Forbes’ killer lines, the ones that haunt me, are the ones that close the poem. They bite, and they bite deep and hard. War is where the west reaches its zenith, its summum bonum, this is where it all comes together. The beautiful machinery of science and technology, the west’s proudest achievement of all, its signature triumphs of rationality, speaking to an unassailable mastery of nature, its domination of world history and its peoples, now pressed into the service of mass killing, putting on a spectacle for its citizens to reassure them that all is well, that old hierarchies remain, that the uppity ‘other’ has a long way to go before catching up with the master. The sounds of war are a lullaby, lulling us to sleep, bidding us turn to dreams while the dirty work carries on outside.

We know this is a show we paid for; we know this is ‘staged’ for us; we own it. All we have to do is buy the popcorn, settle down, and watch. Especially if there is no love to be found elsewhere in this world we have built for ourselves; let us be seduced by this instead.

John Clare On The Transcendence Nearby

In ‘John Clare and the Manifold Commons‘ (Environmental Humanities, vol. 3, 2013, pp. 71-91) Patrick Bresnihan writes,

Clare’s love of the smallest and most trivial details….In its resolute ‘here-and-nowness’…describes nothing more than the most commonplace moments, moments with no higher meaning….the very ordinariness of these moments allows them to resonate with others, to provoke…‘universal feelings.’…the commonplace experiences which Clare evoked….[were] not a finished or neat world of nature but a seemingly infinite series of pictures—of birds, trees, dawns, sunsets—which captured particular moments as they materialized….Clare’s poetry opens up common ground, “a sort of gate into another dimension, a dimension that turns out to be none other than the nowness that is far more radically ‘here’ than any concept of ‘here,’….There is a deep equality to this as human and non-human are all counted as singular entities beyond any particular configuration of roles or functions. It affirms instead the ‘democratic fullness of objects.’:

How beautiful e’en seems
This simple twig that steals it from the hedge
And wavering dipples down to taste the stream.
I cannot think it how the reason is
That every trifle nature’s bosom wears
Should seem so lovely and appear so sweet
And charm so much my soul while heedless passenger
Soodles me by, an animated post,
And ne’er so much as turns his head to look
But stalks along as though his eyes were blinded
And as if the witching face of nature
Held but now a dark unmeaning blank.

Clare was not the first, and certainly will not be the last, poet to find his poetic vision grounded in a sense of the world’s unity, its fractal nature, its ability to contain multitudes within its smallest atoms. Here–in this extract from ‘A Ramble’–he summons up this vision to remind and reassure us that transcendence lurks nearby, in the most ordinary and commonplace of things, in the particulars of the world’s objects, in what might seem in our less sensitive moments, to be mere detritus. Clare warns us against both blind obliviousness to this beauty–which would take it for granted and thus render it dull and meaningless. The world around us, and about us, was not a static, lifeless world to be captured in still images, in theories that froze it, but a world of nested things and the dynamic relationships among them.  Clare urges upon us a self-awareness which suggests that we see ourselves as part of that which surrounds us, indeed, he bids us see ourselves as arising out of, and being grounded in, this world of objects. This recognition is, as mystics have not failed to note, powerfully affective; it may reduce the anxieties of alienation, of the bewilderment that may otherwise be the lot of strangers in a strange land. It forms the basis of the paradigmatic ‘religious experience’; we are ‘rejoined’ with that from which we were originally cast asunder; there is no journey to be made to distant lands; all that we seek is about us and with us at all times.

Note: ‘A Ramble’ may be found in “‘I Am” The Selected Poetry of John Clare, ed. Jonathan Date, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2003

Vilhelm Ekelund On Dogs And Literary Critics

In Nordic and Classic (reprinted in Dagbok och Diktverk by Sven Linquist, Bonniers, Stockholm 1966; excerpted in Vilhelm Ekelund: The Second Light, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1986, page 26), Vilhelm Ekelund, the master Swedish poet and aphorist, writes:

Into the dog’s sense of life enters, no doubt as an essential fact, the joy that God created so many trees and lampposts for him to lift his hind leg against. If the literary critic’s psyche could be analyzed, one would surely find there a vital, analogous disposition: the happiness that God, among the mass of harmlessly acceptable authors, created also the “curious” and original, unacceptable ones, for the critic to rush up to and lift his leg against.

Here, as in many other places in his writing, Ekelund expresses a characteristic dislike of one component of the unholy nexus of critics, fame, and popular opinion–that foul combination by which a writer’s talent would be waylaid and diverted into backwaters of conformism and deadly pandering to the masses. (Notice that the kinds of writers the critic sprays all over are the ‘good ones’: the ‘curious,’ the ‘original,’ and the ‘unacceptable.’) But he also, characteristically, delivers a penetrating insight the about the nature of writing.

Literary critics, sadly enough for Ekelund, are writers too; writers need foils; the critic’s are other writers. More expansively, a writer writes about something (the ‘raw materials’ of the truly productive and prolific are seemingly endless, speaking well to their ability to see ‘a World in a Grain of Sand.’); this is one reason why reading–besides training the writing ‘voice–is indispensable for a writer. It gives the writer her material.  The critic writes about other writers; so they provide grist for the mill, flesh for the sausage machine. The writings that the literary critic critiques may appear as riffs in a musical performance: one performer feeds off the other’s offerings.

Viewed in this light, the literary critic might appear as a parasite, but that would be a mistake. All writers need other writers to write, to push out into this world and to make it one they want to write for and about; the literary critic, who writes about other writers’ writing, is infected by a similar need.

Ekelund would be offended by my suggestion that the critic is a writer but there’s no getting away from such a classification. He might however, lend an attentive ear to the claim that one might venture a kinder view of the critic: that the writer’s disdain for the critic–almost fashionable sometimes–is a function of the critic’s location in a larger political economy of writing, in its ability to make or break or ‘careers’, to be the arbiter of commercial fortune and ‘acceptance’ in the ‘literary world’, one dominated almost entirely by artifice and pretension. Perhaps if the critic could be delinked from such a role, then the writer and the critic both might view each other in a kinder light; they would see the other as fellow travelers, committed to the same art, but with different inclinations, motivations, and methods.

Tim Kreider and the Problem of Too Many Writers

Tim Kreider has a very familiar sounding complaint in the New York Times. It is familiar because his article follows a well-worn template of talking about the Brave New Bad World of Free Content, and because the Times routinely publishes such Op-Eds. Like most screeds put out by what I have termed ‘the whining artist‘ it is incoherent.

This sentence is the heart of the complaint:

[In] our information economy..“paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.

You’ve heard it before: writers are being asked to write for free; no one values writing any more; writers won’t write any more if they don’t get ‘paid’. And so on. (Musicians often make similar complaints.)

This sentence though, does not inspire confidence that Krieder has the slightest clue of what he is talking about:

I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

I’m guessing a pulmonologist is not in the business of producing intangible material that can be effortlessly copied and distributed at minimal cost. Furthermore, barriers to the market for pulmonologist are high: years of expensive education, apprenticeships etc. It’s a pity Kreider’s parents blew so much money on training him to be a writer; perhaps they didn’t realize that these days just about everyone and anyone thinks they can be a writer. And too many of them act on this belief.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. I too, would like everything, all the time, for free. I realize quickly enough that some things in this modern world are not free and yet others–depending on their relative scarcity–are almost free.

For instance, once I’ve paid my internet subscriber’s monthly fee, I can read unlimited amounts of political opinion; everyone has one, and everyone wants to share it with me. I can also read unlimited amounts of poetry, short stories, essays, and so on. There are, it seems, many, many writers around these days. What is it that makes the writing profession so attractive, that so many writers, according to Kreider, are giving their work away for free?

The answer, I thought, was obvious: for a while, thanks to a very particularly structured industry that grew up around it, writing made money and fame for some writers. These writers are cultural icons, giants who stalk the land. Their lives beguile us; we want to be like them. Their fame and riches made many people forget that they were exceptions, and that most writers still failed to make a living. Even the writing lifestyle began to seem glamorous: all that drinking and hanging out in cafes. And didn’t Arthur Miller hook up with Marilyn Monroe?

Writing seems easy. Why not just pull up a piece of paper and a pen and write? Or a typewriter? Or now, a word-processor? Perhaps if you get lucky, you could be admitted to a ‘writing program’ and tap into all the contacts your professors have with agents, editors and publishers?

Soon you find that many, many others have the same dream. And everyone is scribbling away furiously. So many tools to write with; so many publishing platforms; so many lives and things to write about. There’s too much to read; how will I get readers to notice me in this sea of well-crafted words?

Perhaps by ‘exposure’? Perhaps by using my writing as a ‘loss-leader‘ so that I can secure that paying gig, that big contract, that advance, that book tour, that glossy jacket photo, that writer’s cabin on a remote island? Or if not, perhaps I can get a job teaching writing at a writer’s program that turns out more writers? Or less glamorously, perhaps I could teach writing at a college to incoming freshmen? That way, my writing will have made some money for me. Not directly, but indirectly. And then I can get to hang out in cafes and call myself a writer.

Written content is not scarce; quality written content still is; writers need to get noticed. The situation that Kreider then complains about–content being asked for, and being given away for free, just to get ‘noticed’–is almost inevitable.

It would help if writers would stop thinking of themselves as God’s Gift to Mankind and instead began regarding themselves as just another species of creative ‘producers’ whose ‘content’ is not very scarce, and lends itself to easy distribution and reproduction. Interestingly enough, I don’t read too many Op-Eds by artists saying that people are asking them to make paintings for free; they never had a content industry grow up around them and hence have no reason to not think that things are just as they have always been: most artists don’t make money from their art.

Perhaps the fame and riches of the writers of days gone by was a blip in normal service, and not the norm?

Mukul Kesavan on Making the Familiar Strange

Mukul Kesavan concludes a wonderful essay on Lucknow, the English language, Indian writing in English, the Indian summer, and ice-cream with:

[T]the point of writing isn’t to make things familiar; it is to make them strange.

Kesavan is right. To read is a form of escapism and what good would it be if we all we encountered on our reading adventures was more of the mundane? To write too, is a form of escapism, and again, what good would that do if all we felt and experienced through that act was a return to what we had left behind? This departure can, as Graham Greene memorably pointed out, serve as therapeutic relief from what would otherwise be the unmitigated grimness of weekday existence:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. [From: Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980]

Kesavan’s observation alerts us to the fact that in writing, in seeking to describe either the existent, the elapsed, the imaginary or the yet-to-be realized, we seek to go beyond its bare particulars, to dress it up with our words and imagination. But that isn’t all. A good writer sees things we don’t, he is able to match words to objects in ways we can’t. In this new vision, which makes the previously invisible visible, in these new correspondences, which establish unimagined linkages, the familiar becomes strange. This works because the world from day to day is never the world unmediated, raw, unfiltered or ‘given’ or anything like that. It’s already dressed up for us; by the languages we learned, by our histories, our experiences. The writer steps into this neat arrangement and disorders it all. He cannot but if he is any good.

The writer reminds us there are other conceptualizations of the world possible, other ways of drawing meaning from the world’s meaninglessness. The poet, a species of writer, does this in the most radical of ways because he shows us that the language that has served as descriptor and tabulator of the world can itself be drastically reconfigured and pressed into new tasks and responsibilities. This can be captivating and fearful alike. We wonder: how much of the hard-earned and constructed stability of the world, erected as a bulwark against the peculiarity that otherwise peeks at us around its corners, will be diminished by a new description afforded us by a radically different piece of writing? The writer and the poet become peddlers of magic potions, a sip of which induces visions.

This power of the writer is most commonly visible in the novel, of course, but it is perhaps most dramatically visible in the travel essay, written about one’s most familiar habitations, perhaps one’s hometown, by a visitor.  Even the most well-traveled of paths can appear spanking new and mysterious all over again as the traveler fits a new garb to the old land.